Of Veggies, Maples, and Shale Gas
Just as Sheila Russell moved back on her family farm, a dark shadow was already creeping across the landscape. Back on the farm in PA to grow organic veggies next year, she wrote in a Twitter message, soon after she arrived. Gas drilling everywhere putting a kink in my plans a cramp in my style. #@! Sheila carried on with her plans, planting the new organic crop of vegetables, tapping the maples for sap, turning the dreams she had dreamed for so long into a reality.
What they didnt know was that the cement casings of one of the gas wells on their property had failed almost immediately. As Pennsylvanias Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) noted in its violations report in March 2011, over six months after the leak had begun, the well had significant bubbling in cellar / uncontrolled release of gas.
Chesapeake attempted to fix the problem by pumping in more cement into the bore a squeeze job in the parlance of the industry but the efforts failed. After another DEP inspection in the summer of 2011, methane was still leaking from the well. And even though the issues were serious, the Russells, rightful owners of the property they had leased out, were not informed. It took nearly a year after the leaks had started before they found out the true extent of the situation.
It is not just the one leaky well that is endangering the business of Bradford County farmers like Sheila Russell. The industry itself estimates that about six percent of all well casings fail right away, with that percentage climbing to as much as 50 percent within a 30-year span. The failure to fix faulty well casings, which allowed methane to seep into the ground and contaminate the water supplies of 16 Bradford County families, cost Chesapeake a fine of $900,000 last year, the biggest environmental fine in the history of Pennsylvania .
Overall, 2,392 drilling-related violations, posing a threat to the environment and the safety of communities, have been reported in Pennsylvania between 2008 and 2011.
Energy, Food and Ag, Top StoriesThe Surprising Connection Between Food and Fracking—By Tom Philpott (in Mother Jones)Jan. 30, 2013 3:01 AM PSTBut there’s another, emerging food/fracking connection that few are aware of. US agriculture is highly reliant on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, and nitrogen fertilizer is synthesized in a process fueled by natural gas. As more and more of the US natural gas supply comes from fracking, more and more of the nitrogen fertilizer farmers use will come from fracked natural gas. If Big Ag becomes hooked on cheap fracked gas to meet its fertilizer needs, then the fossil fuel industry will have gained a powerful ally in its effort to steamroll regulation and fight back opposition to fracking projects.Meanwhile, the fracking boom has made US natural gas suddenly abundant—and driven prices into the ground. A Btu of US natural gas now now costs 75 percent less than it did in 2008, the New York Times recently reported. Meanwhile, nitrogen fertilizer prices remain stubbornly high, propped up by strong demand driven by high crop prices. Those conditions—low input prices plus elevated prices for the final product—mean a potential profit bonanza for companies that use cheap US natural gas to make pricy N fertilizer for the booming US market.Not surprisingly, as Kay McDonald of the excellent blog Big Picture Agriculture shows, the industry is starting to move back to the United States to take advantage of the fracking boom. McDonald points to a $1.4 billion project announced in September by the Egyptian company Orascom Construction Industries to build a large new nitrogen fertilizer plant in Iowa close to a natural gas pipeline. According to the Wall Street Journal, “cheap U.S. natural-gas supplies and the nation’s role as the world’s most important food exporter” drew the Egyptian giant into the US market.Industrial agriculture’s reliance on plentiful synthetic nitrogen brings with it a whole bevy of environmental liabilities: excess nitrogen that seeps into streams and eventually into the Mississippi River, feeding a massive annual algae bloom that blots out sea life; emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon; and the destruction of organic matter in soil.As they fight the expansion of fracking and push for tighter regulations on it, concerned citizens can count on an opponent nearly as powerful and monied as Big Oil: Big Ag. Already, the American Farm Bureau Federation, which essentially acts as a lobbyist for Big Ag firms, supports the controversial energy source: “Farm Bureau supports additional access for exploration and production of oil and natural gas, including the use of hydraulic fracturing,” the group declared in an October 2012 policy statement (PDF). But the Farm Bureau and its agribiz allies haven’t played much of a role in the fight over regulating fracking, yet. As the fertilizer industry becomes reliant on cheap US natural gas, that will likely change.
Special report Livestock falling ill in fracking regions, raising concerns about food28th January, 2013Elizabeth Royte
In the midst of the US domestic energy boom, livestock on farms near oil-and-gas drilling operations nationwide have been quietly falling sick and dying.
Elizabeth Royte reportsWhile scientists have yet to isolate cause and effect, many suspect chemicals used in drilling and hydrofracking (or “fracking”) operations are poisoning animals through the air, water, or soil.Last year, Michelle Bamberger, an Ithaca, New York, veterinarian, and Robert Oswald, a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, published the first and only peer-reviewed report to suggest a link between fracking and illness in food animals.The authors compiled 24 case studies of farmers in six shale-gas states whose livestock experienced neurological, reproductive, and acute gastrointestinal problems after being exposed—either accidentally or incidentally—to fracking chemicals in the water or air. The article, published in New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, describes how scores of animals died over the course of several years.The death toll is insignificant when measured against the nation’s livestock population (some 97 million beef cattle go to market each year), but environmental advocates believe these animals constitute an early warning.Exposed livestock “are making their way into the food system, and it’s very worrisome to us,” Bamberger says. “They live in areas that have tested positive for air, water, and soil contamination. Some of these chemicals could appear in milk and meat products made from these animals.”In Louisiana, 17 cows died after an hour’s exposure to spilled fracking fluid, which is injected miles underground to crack open and release pockets of natural gas. The most likely cause of death: respiratory failure.In New Mexico, hair testing of sick cattle that grazed near well pads found petroleum residues in 54 of 56 animals.In northern central Pennsylvania, 140 cattle were exposed to fracking wastewater when an impoundment was breached. Approximately 70 cows died, and the remainder produced only 11 calves, of which three survived.In western Pennsylvania, an overflowing wastewater pit sent fracking chemicals into a pond and a pasture where pregnant cows grazed: Half their calves were born dead. Dairy operators in shale-gas areas of Colorado, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Texas have also reported the death of goats.Drilling and fracking a single well requires up to 7 million gallons of water, plus an additional 400,000 gallons of additives, including lubricants, biocides, scale- and rust-inhibitors, solvents, foaming and defoaming agents, emulsifiers and de-emulsifiers, stabilizers and breakers. At almost every stage of developing and operating an oil or gas well, chemicals and compounds can be introduced into the environment.Cows lose weight, dieAfter drilling began just over the property line of Jacki Schilke’s ranch in the northwestern corner of North Dakota, in the heart of the state’s booming Bakken Shale, cattle began limping, with swollen legs and infections. Cows quit producing milk for their calves, and they lost from 60 to 80 pounds in a week and their tails mysteriously dropped off. Eventually, five animals died, according to Schilke.Ambient air testing by a certified environmental consultant detected elevated levels of benzene, methane, chloroform, butane, propane, toluene, and xylene—and well testing revealed high levels of sulfates, chromium, chloride, and strontium. Schilke says she moved her herd upwind and upstream from the nearest drill pad.Although her steers currently look healthy, she says, “I won’t sell them because I don’t know if they’re okay.”Nor does anyone else. Energy companies are exempt from key provisions of environmental laws, which makes it difficult for scientists and citizens to learn precisely what is in drilling and fracking fluids or airborne emissions. And without information on the interactions between these chemicals and pre-existing environmental chemicals, veterinarians can’t hope to pinpoint an animal’s cause of death.The risks to food safety may be even more difficult to parse, since different plants and animals take up different chemicals through different pathways.“There are a variety of organic compounds, metals, and radioactive material [released in the fracking process] that are of human health concern when livestock meat or milk is ingested,” Motoko Mukai, a veterinary toxicologist at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, says.These “compounds accumulate in the fat and are excreted into milk. Some compounds are persistent and do not get metabolized easily.”Veterinarians don’t know how long chemicals may remain in animals, farmers aren’t required to prove their livestock are free of contamination before middlemen purchase them, and the Food Safety Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture isn’t looking for these compounds in carcasses at slaughterhouses.Documenting the scope of the problem is difficult: Scientists lack funding to study the matter, and rural vets remain silent for fear of retaliation. Farmers who receive royalty checks from energy companies are reluctant to complain, and those who have settled with gas companies following a spill or other accident are forbidden to disclose information to investigators. Some food producers would rather not know what’s going on, say ranchers and veterinarians.“It takes a long time to build up a herd’s reputation,” rancher Dennis Bauste of Trenton Lake, North Dakota, says. “I’m gonna sell my calves and I don’t want them to be labeled as tainted. Besides, I wouldn’t know what to test for. Until there’s a big wipe-out, a major problem, we’re not gonna hear much about this.”Fracking proponents criticise Bamberger and Oswald’s paper as a political, not a scientific, document. “They used anonymous sources, so no one can verify what they said,” says Steve Everley, of the industry lobby group Energy In Depth. The authors didn’t provide a scientific assessment of impacts—testing what specific chemicals might do to cows that ingest them, for example—so treating their findings as scientific, he continues, “is laughable at best, and dangerous for public debate at worst.”The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the main lobbying group for ranchers, takes no position on fracking, but some ranchers are beginning to speak out. “These are industry-supporting conservatives, not radicals,” says Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the environmental group, Natural Resources Defense Council. “They are the experts in their animals’ health, and they are very concerned.”Last March, Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called for studies of oil and gas production’s impact on food plants and animals. None are currently planned by the federal government.As local food booms, consumers waryBut consumers intensely interested in where and how their food is grown aren’t waiting for hard data to tell them their meat or milk is safe. For them, the perception of pollution is just as bad as the real thing.“My beef sells itself. My farm is pristine. But a restaurant doesn’t want to visit and see a drill pad on the horizon,” Ken Jaffe, who raises grass-fed cattle in upstate New York, says. Only recently has the local foods movement, in regions across the country, reached a critical mass. But the movement’s lofty ideals could turn out to be, in shale gas areas, a double-edged sword.Should the moratorium on hydrofracking in New York State be lifted, the 16,200-member Park Slope Food Co-op, in Brooklyn, will no longer buy food from farms anywhere near drilling operations—a $4 million loss for upstate producers. The livelihood of organic goat farmer Steven Cleghorn, who’s surrounded by active wells in Pennsylvania, is already in jeopardy.“People at the farmers market are starting to ask exactly where this food comes from,” he says.This report was produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent investigative journalism non-profit focusing on food, agriculture, and environmental health. A longer version of this story appears onTheNation.com. (story reprinted below)
EDITORS NOTE: Following the publication of this story in the US, Energy In Depth, a research programme of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, criticised the author’s reporting, and a debate between the author and Energy In Depth resulted. The criticism and response can be obtained on request.
The following article from The Nation reports on the impact of hydrofracking upon farms in North Dakota: